When I told people I was starting a blog, nobody asked me why another website on fiction and science was needed. One reason was probably that none of them knew that there were at least three others. In fact, few people realized that a new subgenre of literary fiction had emerged, that there were already three websites devoted to it and that three different names were being used. I want to discuss the three alternatives, and explain what’s special about my new one and why it’s needed.
LabLit.com has the largest following and the broadest explicit definition of what kind of fiction is included. It’s a good resource for anyone interested in fiction about science, including movies and plays, and the novels are subcategorized as drama, thriller, mystery and “lab lit lite.” The label “lab lit,” apparently on analogy with chick lit, is catchy but misleading in that much scientific work occurs outside laboratories. As far as I can determine, the first attempt to carve out a distinct type of literary fiction was Carl Djerassi’s description of his “science-in-fiction” tetralogy. The latter are great reads, but the Djerassi’s label also has problems. Replacing the hyphen in science-fiction suggests a subset of that well established genre. Fiction about science is definitely not the same. The third approach is a new academic program called “Fiction meets Science” being planned at the University of Bremen in Germany. Like “fiction about science,” the label is cumbersome. There’s a brief description at h-w-k.de/en/events/conferences-details/fiction-meets-science.html.
I think there’s a place, however, for a blog focused on a relatively small but growing number of novels about the work of science and scientists. While many novels on the Lab Lit List (see my previous post) have scientists as major characters and take place in realistic settings, very few have plots built around the drama of scientific research itself. Two examples will help to clarify my point. Claire Cyrus’s research finding forms the core of the story in Jennifer Rohn’s The Honest Look, whereas a murdered graduate student and the mystery surrounding his death is the centerpiece of Isaac Asimov’s wonderful A Whiff of Death. Almost all of Asimov’s characters are realistic scientists and the story takes place in a university chemistry department. The background and setting are completely realistic, but the question is who’s the murderer, not what is the outcome of a research project and what are its implications.
What difference does it make whether science is the crux of the story? I think the answer is that the average nonscientist can’t truly get what makes scientists tick without an understanding of the reasons why scientists, real or fictional, devote years of their lives preparing to spend long hours, often at grinding routines that frequently result in frustrating outcomes, all for less financial compensation than equally talented and dedicated contemporaries. Fiction is a powerful way to capture these internal struggles from inside a scientist’s head. It is at least as effective as biography. It is also an excellent place to show some of the subtler aspects of scientific knowledge that get left out of nonfiction accounts. For example, the confusing way findings relate to general principles and the difficulty of producing clear, unambiguous results.
This blog is devoted to discussing and promoting novels that succeed in making the inner life of scientists vivid and real for nonscientists.